New Interview: Carl Reiner on 'Dick Van Dyke' Magic & The Secret to Comedy
By David Weiner
The Dick Van Dyke Show set the bar for situational comedy during its run in the early '60s, and now 20 unforgettable episodes are featured in the brand-new DVD release The Dick Van Dyke Show: Classic Mary Tyler Moore Episodes, out today. Created by comedy legend Carl Reiner, the series won 15 Emmy awards and is ranked at 13 on TV Guide's 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time. Reiner spoke to ETonline about the show's origins; the secret to writing durable comedy; and how its high-profile stars were one step away from turning their onscreen romance into real-life love!
"I’m often asked, 'What is my favorite thing I’ve ever done creatively' -- I’ll say, hands down, The Dick Van Dyke Show," the ageless, energetic 92-year-old Reiner tells ETonline. "There’s no question about it, best years of my life. I worked there five years and it was a labor of love."
The chronicles of a family man in the suburbs of New York who is the head writer for a comedy-variety show, The Dick Van Dyke Show was on the air from October 3, 1961, until June 1, 1966, and started out as a different comedy pilot that Reiner wrote for himself, but failed to connect. The writing rung true, however, and Reiner says that his agent insisted that he give it another shot: "[Sheldon Leonard] was bothered that this gold was laying on his desk; he knew he could sell it. He said, ‘You know, I love the show,’ and I said, ‘Sheldon, I gotta tell ya that I failed with this show once, I will not fail two times with the same show.’ He says, 'You won’t fail – we'll get a better actor to play you.' He suggested Dick Van Dyke, [who] turned out to be the best situational comedy actor that ever existed."
Reiner cast himself in the show as Alan Brady, the self-absorbed star of the variety show that Dick writes for, but was having a tough time casting the part of Dick's wife: "I had seen so many girls, and I didn’t know what I was looking for anymore," he explains. "And Sheldon says, ‘You’ll know when you see her.'"
Reiner's pal Danny Thomas remembered Mary Tyler Moore, "the girl with three first names whose nose went the wrong way," from a previous audition for his own show, Make Room for Daddy, and suggested her: "She was reluctant to come because she had failed that week with an audition, so she didn’t want to bother failing again," recalls Reiner. "But she bit her lip and came in, and as soon as she walks in the door I said, ‘My god, look at that beauty.’ … I asked her to read one line and she just nailed it. … I grabbed the top of her head and I said, 'Come with me young lady.' I took her that way right into Sheldon Leonard’s office and I said, 'I found her, here she is.'"
The chemistry between Moore and Van Dyke was magic, and Reiner reveals that something kismet might have happened between them if they weren't already taken: "They really liked each other. As a matter of fact, they admitted years later that if they both had not been married that they might’ve, you know, become entangled with each other."
Did Reiner know the show would be a hit?
"You know something, I had a hunch. I was basic, and on something that was true. If you’re writing about truth, which is looking into yourself and saying, ‘I’m a person and most people are people,’ and if you write about yourself you’re not unlike other people. You have the same desires to be married, to fall in love, to have children. So, if you’re writing about yourself and writing honestly about it, it’s going to resonate among other people. I knew that. And when I started doing the show, and I started to see what it looked like, I said, 'My god this could be a classic.' I really said that!"
Reiner on his favorite episode, It May Look Like a Walnut:
"I remember one in particular -- I was looking for things that were new and different, and I was doing satires, looking for a satire of all these shows, and I came upon The Twilight Zone, and I wrote a satire of The Twilight Zone. I thought it was very brilliant. Sheldon Leonard didn’t like it. He was our executive producer, and he said, 'I don’t get it,' and he sort of tossed the script and says, ‘You do it, I don’t know which,’ and he walked out of the first reading. And so, we did the script and it turned out hilarious."
Reiner on his post-Dick Van Dyke directing career, which included the hits Where's Poppa?, Oh, God!, The Jerk and All of Me:
"When I finished The Dick Van Dyke Show, I went on to be an actor in The Russians are Coming The Russians are Coming, the first time I felt free of responsibility – it was just how to get my toupee on straight, that's all I had to do -- and that was a pleasure. But the big break came when I started to direct and write my own movies. Some of the movies I wrote which didn’t become big hits, to me are [very special]. The Comic that I did with Dick Van Dyke is one of the saddest, loveliest pictures I've done, and then I did one called The Man with Two Brains with Steve Martin. As a matter of fact that, I had a therapist once who’d do work on my back, and he said that he has a bunch of guys who were members of a club, the Break Your Brains Club, and they know every line and every moment and they recite it. So, those are the things that tickle me to no end."
Has Reiner ever felt pigeonholed or trapped in a box of his own making as a man of comedy, rather than drama or other genres?
"I love my box, I just love my box. I look forward to it, and the only time I get sad is when I come to my computer and I don’t have an idea. So what I’ve been doing more often that I want to is play solitaire. I figure, ‘I’ll get back to it, I’ll get back to it.' It's called multi-tasking – you do two things at once, and then all of a sudden you say, 'I've got to do one thing that matters.'"
What's Reiner's secret recipe for making people laugh?
"What makes people laugh is the human factor that exists in all of us. If you think of yourself as special and different you’ll never be able to make people laugh. If you think of yourself as one of many, what makes you laugh is going to make them laugh. And so if you tickle yourself, you honestly tickle yourself, you’re going to tickle somebody else as you’re tickling yourself. There's no question about it. Don’t try to figure out what people are looking for. Figure out what you’re looking for -- do what you’re looking for and you’ll find out you’re very much like everybody else."
Watch Part 1 of The Dick Van Dyke Show's It May Look Like a Walnut episode: